ÖBB drops out of Russian gauge project Vienna-Slovakia
Austrian railway company ÖBB has officially withdrawn from the joint venture responsible for the broad gauge extension from Kosice in Slovakia to Austrian capital Vienna. It has offered its shares for sale to its Russian, Ukrainian and Slovakian counterparts, citing the Russia-Ukraine war as the reason for the change of course.
The broad gauge (1,520 mm) railway network, commonly known as Russian gauge, is prevalent in Russia and some countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and the Baltics as well as in central Asia. Currently it reaches its most-westward point in the Slovakian hub of Kosice. For a long period of time, the Austrians were eager to see this line extend to its own transport hub – Vienna. This would enable a significant shift to rail, it has advocated over the years.
Share for sale
Towards this end the Breitspur Planungsgesellschaft mbH (BPG) was formed in 2008, including ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG, Slovak Railways, Russian Railways and Ukrainian Railways. The first three parties hold a 27.74 per cent share in BPG, while the remaining 16.78 per cent is held by the Ukrainian partner.
“At the end of February, ÖBB suspended all activities in connection with the BPG. Due to unforeseeable developments with regard to the Russia-Ukraine war, ÖBB decided in April to withdraw as a 27.7 per cent shareholder”, a spokesperson explained.
Does this mean the end for the ambitious project? In all likelihood, yes. The Austrian shares have been offered to the other shareholders for takeover in April, and the partners have the “right of first refusal” for four weeks. “In the event that none of the shareholders exercises the right of first refusal, BPG will automatically be transformed into a company in liquidation”, ÖBB explained. So far, there has been no news of a takeover.
No benefit for others
From the start, the Austrians were most actively engaged with the project. The Slovaks have been described as reluctant towards the extension, which would alter the unique position of Kosice. “I am not a friend of this idea. I always wonder what Slovakia gains from it. The unloading area is then in Vienna instead of Kosice. So the Viennese would be the only to benefit”, said Ivo Nesrovnal, Mayor of Bratislava, to the Wiener Zeitung last year.
In contrast, an important and intermodal European freight terminal would be created on Austrian soil, analogous to the large ports, combined with new jobs and corresponding added value. “The macroeconomic advantages are estimated at approximately 127,500 annual job equivalents and an added value of approximately 16 billion euros for Austria as a business location”, the Austrian railway company pointed out.
Last significant action
Nevertheless, the BPG submitted all necessary documents for the EIA in Slovakia on January 28 this year, anticipating a timely start of activities in the country. The BPG framed it as an important milestone for the project, and said that the submission would be evaluated in the weeks to come.
The assessment has never been completed, so it seems. “With the Summary Declaration in Austria (May 2021) and the submission of the Environmental Report in Slovakia (January 2022), the last significant operational actions in line with the corporate purpose of BPG were taken”, ÖBB said.